Blog piece: Nature is important full stop

In the wake of a summer of changes to green policy, with global warming set to breach the 1oC threshold this winter, and with the Paris climate talks around the corner, our Senior Ecologist Morgan Taylor discusses some of the big issues that face nature conservation in the UK.

Whilst responding to a Welsh government consultation for their proposed ‘New Management Measures for the Scallop Fishery in Cardigan Bay’ I noted a prime example of the ill-informed, naïve and contemptuous attitude towards nature conservation habitually exhibited by policy makers. The proposals, which seek to see the re-introduction of damaging fishing practices at a site of critical value for European bottlenose dolphin populations, were based on a flawed assessment that did not pass through publication and peer review.

A consultation questionnaire to judge the public perception of the plans (because that’s how complex policy, that’s implications require a significant understanding of marine ecosystems to understand, is best decided apparently) had been arranged in such a way to blatantly allow statistical misappropriation – they will be able to spin the results regardless of the actual opinion of contributors. Forget the calls for the designation of Marine Conservation Zone near to Cardigan Bay (127 were recommended with 23 actually created around the UK) this entirely undermines the existing paradigm for inshore conservation effort.

It’s therefore highly likely that Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation will soon see the return of destructive fishing methods, and the departure of its convalescing fauna, given a far-too-brief 5 year respite from intensive fishing since 2010 – who likes dolphins, long term sustainability and eco-tourism anyway?

So what? This sort of mismanagement happens all the time, why kick up a fuss now? Well, this example forms a handy parable for the greatest threat that currently faces nature conservation in the UK.

Special Areas of Conservation are designated by the UK government under the European Commission’s Habitats Directive, 1992, which requires the establishment of a Europe wide network of important conservation sites. Along with Special Protection Areas these sites are part of the Natura 2000 network and protect over 200 habitat types and 1000 key stone species.

This Directive, along with the Birds Directive, the other legislative cornerstone (despite its flaws) of contemporary wildlife conservation in Europe, is threatened by an EU ‘fitness check’ next month. Driven by industry and political pressure this move makes a nonsense of our actions towards the promotion of nature conservation and the protection of valuable wildlife sites over the last 20 years. There is a significant weight of scientific data which supports the value of Natura 2000 sites; the Directives work, and I would challenge you to find a reliable study that proves otherwise.

It’s not the Directives that are broken, it’s the implementation. If a police force were failing to prevent murders from occurring, you wouldn’t blame the legislation for being too onerous, you would probably look to address how the police were enforcing the legislation.

It would seem serendipitous for the UK government that this move by the EC comes at a time of ‘red tape removal’ for developers, through the slashing of green subsidies and actions such as the weakening of protection for brownfield land in planning. Just as well that Elizabeth Truss, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, seemingly forgot to sign an appeal to the EC warning of the implications of dismantling these laws; luckily, Germany, leading an alliance of nine EU countries, remembered. The Conservatives are yet to comment (other than a statement by Osborne in the 2011 Coalition budget where the Directives were heavily criticised), maintaining their lack of transparency, and continuing their commitment to ignore the threat of climate change and back track on the baby steps taken towards a low-carbon economy under the Coalition.

Government were vocal enough for EU Common Agricultural Policy reform, shouting about the opportunities that present themselves for improved biodiversity and climate change adaptation. As it stands we only spend £55 billion on farm subsidies that encourage damaging practices and nourish negative feedback loops, cumulatively impacting the efficacy of ecosystem services provided for the lowlands and climate change resilience delivery (not to mention reintroduction of neonicitinoid pesticides); it’s almost as if policy only favours a small minority who own a large proportion of the land and have significant political influence?

Decoupling the environment from the economy is a dangerous move. It seems shocking that the value of the natural world does not appear to be appreciated by those that can make a difference; not that there’s a great precedent set by politicians for promoting evidence based policy when it doesn’t directly correlate to electability, unless it’s based on circumstantial, heavily extrapolated or fictional data of course.

The uplands are haemorrhaging money, whilst the areas that should be most protected are mismanaged and threatened, and the forgotten hinterlands are lost to unsustainable development. We are taking one step forward and two steps back, inching ever closer towards the ‘green crap’ anti-environment cultural hegemony that seems to be the ultimate goal of Government. The entire rhetoric needs a step-change. It’s not an abstruse concept, but nature is important full stop.

We should therefore be hurriedly lobbying for the protection of the Directives and committing to progressive climate change mitigation measures – we should value our most protected sites and see the opportunities that present themselves for re-wilding and habitat restoration. Maybe then we stand some sort of a chance.